“The Kid” - Charlie Chaplin (1921)

Charlie Chaplin’s first feature-length film, The Kid (1921), was a breakthrough for the young actor/filmmaker.  Although he was already famous for his many “two-reelers” (approximately 20-minute-length films) that featured his patented slapstick comedy, Chaplin wanted to move into the realm of more ambitious films by making a six-reeler that offered more sophisticated storytelling. What he came up with was a superb mixture of comedy and sentimentality that was an immediate hit at the box office and still stands as one of Chaplin’s most popular films.

The distributor to which Chaplin was under contract at the time, First National, was impatient for more popular two-reelers, but the perfectionist producer-director-actor-writer-editor Chaplin took his time with the production of this film to fashion what he wanted [1].  He riskily borrowed $500,000 and then spent about nine months shooting and reshooting scenes for this film (and about eighteen months in overall production time) to get just the kind of end result he was looking for [2,3].  In fact Chaplin’s shooting ratio for this film (the ratio of total camera footage shot to footage of the released film) was 53:1, an extraordinarily high figure for any scripted production.

The story of The Kid concerns Chaplin’s familiar “Tramp” character circumstantially forced into adopting an orphan newborn and then somehow raising the boy despite the Tramp’s impoverished circumstances.  Along the way, the two of them develop a unique bonding that lies at the heart of the film’s appeal. 

Chaplin’s choice to immerse himself into this narrative was undoubtedly affected by the recent tragic death of his own newborn child.  His 17-year-old wife Mildred had just given birth to a malformed son who had died due to birth defects after only three days in July 1919.  Chaplin was apparently traumatized by this event, and in response he almost immediately began working on the script and the casting for his new feature film about raising an abandoned child.  In this connection Chaplin was fortunate to stumble upon a four-year-old vaudeville performer, Jackie Coogan, who turned out to be just perfect for the role of the waif that is the Tramp’s adopted son in The Kid.  Coogan’s performance in this film is still considered to be one of the greatest and most appealing child screen-acting performances of all time.

An early title in The Kid announces that this is
"A picture with a smile—and perhaps, a tear"
and the film is largely devoted to combining these two sentiments.  However, there are a couple of underlying themes in this tale that are worth discussing in this story’s context.  One concerns Chaplin’s Tramp character, himself, and how he differs from Buster Keaton’s usual silent-film character.  Keaton’s character is invariably an earnest, middle-class innocent who, however inexperienced and ill-equipped he might be, wants to do the right thing according to the given social mandate.  His problem, though, is that he is often faced with overwhelming external, “natural” forces that threaten to annihilate him.  Chaplin’s Tramp, though, is not middle-class at all; he is an impoverished bum at the bottom of society.  And the Tramp is certainly not innocent; he is a relentless poseur who ludicrously pretends to be what he is not – a dignified man worthy of respect.  And he will cheat his more powerful adversaries in any way that he can.  But the Tramp’s adversaries are not natural forces but a human society that has always stacked the deck against people like him.  So the viewer sympathizes with the naughty Tramp in his endless struggle against big bullies and social prejudices.  However, in this film under discussion, the inner nature and evolution of the Tramp’s own personal outlook on life becomes an issue.

Another and related underlying theme in the film concerns how the moral fabric of society as a whole is buttressed by the religious beliefs commonly held in society.  Although most religions assert that their principles have absolute, divinely-sourced authority, we know that the specificity and structure of these principles are actually human-made and subject to the limitations of human frailty [4].  Chaplin, who was evidently an agnostic [5], alludes to the artificiality (i.e. non-divine) nature of these principles in this story (particularly towards the end), but he doesn’t completely debunk them, either.  Instead, he seems to point to something deeper and more intrinsic about human nature that moves us to act with loving compassion for no apparent practical reason.  And the way Chaplin portrays this is what makes The Kid a great film.

The story of the film has six unequally-sized sections to it.

1.  An Orphan is Adopted
In the beginning we see The Woman (played by Edna Purviance, who was romantically involved with Chaplin before and around this time) who has just given birth to a child out of wedlock.  In a panic that she doesn’t have sufficient means to support the child, she desperately looks for a way to pass the baby onto someone who can take care of it.  When she walks by a luxurious sedan, she surreptitiously stashes her baby in the backseat and then hurries away.  However, the car is then stolen by car thieves who, after discovering the baby in the back, dump the child near a trash bin in a city slum.

The Tramp (Chaplin, in his signature shabby outfit) happens to walk by and see the baby.  He picks it up and looks for the baby’s owner, or at least for a mother who can take care of it.  But in a series of slapstick misencounters, he fails to unload the baby on anyone, after which he comes under the suspicious eye of a watchful policeman (Tom Wilson) walking his beat.  During this sequence The Tramp seems to have little concern for the baby and seems primarily concerned with getting out of trouble.  However, in the end The Tramp’s efforts come to naught, and it looks like he will just have to look after the baby himself.

Meanwhile the distraught Woman has second thoughts about giving away her baby and is distressed that she cannot find it.

2.  5 Years Later
The story moves forward five years in time, and we see The Tramp and his reluctantly adopted child (Jackie Coogan), who has been named “John”, living together in The Tramp’s shabby flat.  It is clear that the two of them are now a team and get on well with each other.  They have worked out a business together, whereby John throws a rock breaking a random apartment’s window, and then The Tramp, operating as a street-vending glazier, just happens to walk by and offer to repair the window for a fee.  Of course doing this requires dodging the watchful eyes of the policeman on his beat.  Things get more hilarious when they unknowingly break the window of the policeman’s own flat, and The Tramp, while negotiating his glazier fee, brazenly flirts with the policeman’s wife.  Just then the policeman returns home and, seeing what is going on, gets into a violent slapstick scuffle and chase with The Tramp.

We also see that The Tramp, even though he makes money through duplicity, has somehow become a more responsible parent and has brought up John to know how to cook pancakes for breakfast, to say grace before meals, and to say his prayers before going to bed.  In fact John appears to be more organized, industrious, and sincerely moral than The Tramp, himself.

Meanwhile John’s mother, The Woman, is shown to have now become a star opera singer, but her newfound wealth does nothing to assuage her sorrow over her lost child.  She tries to relieve her feelings of guilt by handing out gifts to children in the slums.

3.  The Big Bully
One day an obstreperous bully steals a favorite toy from John, and the two of them get into a fight.  The Tramp rushes over to break things up, but when he sees John surprisingly winning the fight, he lets them go ahead.  But just then the bully’s muscular adult brother, whom we shall call “The Big Bully” (Charles Reisner), shows up and starts a fight with The Tramp.  This is a major and extended slapstick scene in the film and features an epic, presumably one-sided, struggle between the ruthless roughneck, who can knock out a policeman with one punch, and the terrified Tramp, whose ducking and feinting just manage to save him from The Big Bully’s roundhouse blows.

After awhile The Woman happens to show up on the scene, and she gets The Big Bully to halt his aggression and show Christian compassion.  She tells him,
“if he smites you on one cheek, offer him the other.”
This The Big Bully dutifully does, but The Tramp merely uses this as an opportunity to deliver some sucker-punches.  Again we see The Tramp’s disregard for conventional morality.  He naughtily goes his own way.  And Chaplin is suggesting here, too, that conventional morality is often unrealistically impractical and often just used as an instrument of oppression.

The fighting continues, and The Tramp’s ballet-like dodging and darting gradually enable him win the fight.  Afterwards, The Woman approaches The Tramp and informs him that she has found his “son” John, whom she does not know is actually her own son, and discovered that the boy is seriously ill.

4.  The Officials Intervene
Now “the system” enters the picture and causes trouble.  A pompous doctor comes to treat John, and seeing The Tramp’s shabby household, informs the orphanage officials to come and take the boy away.  The officials come, and although The Tramp and John temporarily fight them off, John is eventually taken away by force.  It is here that we have the most moving scenes in the film, because it is here that it becomes clear that both John and The Tramp love each other.  The poignant image of Jackie Coogan (as John) tearfully reaching out towards The Tramp as he is taken away is perhaps the most lasting image one has of the film.

However, The Tramp now breaks away from the police, scoots away from them over the rooftops, and boldly rescues John from the abducting orphanage authorities.  He and John then take cover for the night in a local slum flophouse.

However, meanwhile The Woman has discovered that the ill boy she had recently seen was actually her own long lost child, and she has placed an ad in the newspaper offering a big reward to anyone who can help her find him.  When the flophouse manager happens to read this ad, he steals John away from his bed while the boy and The Tramp are sleeping, and then he forcibly takes the boy to the police station. The Woman is duly notified, and when she arrives at the police station, she is thrilled to be reunited with her lost son.

When The Tramp wakes up and discovers John missing, he spends the rest of the day fruitlessly searching for the boy.  Finally, exhausted, he returns to his now locked-up doorstep, falls asleep, and starts to dream.

5.  Dreamland
The dreamland that The Tramp now enters has been criticized by some viewers as a frivolous insertion to the story that has no meaningful connection to the existing narrative.  But actually I think it has some connection to the two underlying themes that I mentioned earlier.

In The Tramp’s dreamland, he finds himself in “heaven” – everyone has feathered wings, and they are all dancing joyfully about playing on their harps.  Many of the people we have seen earlier are there, including the policeman and The Big Bully, but now they are all ridiculously festive and benevolent.  Indeed this product of The Tramp’s imaginings is an absurd caricature of the heaven of popular culture.  And like the rest of The Tramp’s world, it, too, is subject to corruption.  Soon some sprightly demons sneak into the dreamland and sow the seeds of temptation and jealously.

A flirtatious angel (played by 12-year-old Lita Grey, who in real life would marry Charlie Chaplin three years later) naughtily induces The Tramp to kiss her, and her boyfriend in this dreamland, The Big Bully, gets jealous.  Soon The Big Bully and The Tramp are fighting, just as they had done in The Tramp’s wakeful state.  Again we are treated to more slapstick theatrics between The Tramp and The Big Bully.  But when The Tramp finally tries to escape the fight by using his wings to fly away, the hitherto (in the dreamland) benevolent policeman fires his gun at him and shoots him dead.

6.  Restoration
The film now shifts back to the “real” world, and the policeman, finding The Tramp sleeping at his doorstep, wakes him up.  Then, without explanation, he takes The Tramp away in his police car.  But instead of taking him to the police station, he takes him to wealthy mansion.  When the mansion door is opened, The Tramp is greeted by The Woman and John, who joyfully welcome him to their home.

So in the end, happiness reigns.  And the source of that happiness, Chaplin seems to be telling us, is not from following the artificial rules of society.  All those explicit rules and guidelines of human society are just man-made concoctions that have their limitations.  Even our religious principles that supposedly emanate from spiritual masters or divine inspiration are still artificial contrivances that have arisen from our imaginations. They are all restricted by the finite resources of the human mind.  And the dreamland of this film is Chaplin’s exaggerated illustration of just how far our heavenly imaginations differ from the infinite.

But the spontaneous love that arises from The Tramp and little John is something that transcends those limitations of the human mind.  It is something that is heavenly.  We cannot express it; we can only feel it when we see the visual narrative and relate it to experiences from our own lives.  This is what elevates The Kid to a high level.  Those images of John and The Tramp reaching out to each other to preserve (or frantically scrambling to support) their spontaneously evolved heartfelt connection are what stir sympathy in our hearts.

  1. Mark Bourne, “The Kid: The Chaplin Collection”, The DVD Journal, (2004).   
  2. Andrea Passafiume, "The Kid (1921)", Turner Classic Movies, (n.d.).    
  3. David Robinson, “Filming The Kid”, CharlieChaplin.Com, (2004).
  4. Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind, HarperCollins Publisher, (2015), Chapter 12: The Law of Religion, pp. 209-236.
  5. David Duprey, “The Kid (1921): A Brave Rescue”, That Moment In, (1 October 2014).   

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